Spotlight on Bath, Maine

2012-11-24 14.56.46Bath is a small town on the mouth of the Kennebec River about 35 miles north of Portland, Maine. Its principal industry has been and continues to be shipbuilding, although the wooden pinnace ships built in 1607 have given way to Arleigh Burke-class destroyers. Over this time, the town has maintained picturesque residential districts, working industrial districts, and a vibrant retail area.

City Hall is at the top of the hill from which Front Street, the town’s main street, descends, and terminates Centre Street. These two streets make up the retail core of Bath. Front Street, like Maine Street in Brunswick, has some places where it bulges to form small plazas. The street is dense with trees, benches, signs, and other furniture. The commercial district ends to the north about when you get to the Patten Free Library. The district exhibits the idea of having “A” and “B” streets, and Water Street, where parking is located to keep it from damaging Front Street, is a perfect “B” street.

Bath lacks the common traditional to New England towns, but does feature a very nice waterfront park which is adjacent to the commercial district. This shows the importance of the waterfront in the history of the town.

Many of the residential streets of Bath run perpendicular to the commercial and industrial streets along the river, and as such they go up the steep hills of the bluffs that line the Kennebec. The town is known for its pre-war residential architecture, and people from nearby towns will often visit to look at houses.

Bath is rare in that it is a small Northeastern town where many of the jobs are still based on manufacturing, and those mostly on shipbuilding. The Bath Iron Works is a major regional employer and supplier of US Navy ships, as well as yachts and lightvessels. They have done a good job of preserving some of their oldest buildings from back in 1884, while expanding to serve the needs of modern ship manufacturing. Some of the neighboring homes across Washington Street have been converted to offices where ships are designed and other support services take place.

Bath is a great town, and not just because it is pretty, but also because it is a town that knows how to work. It’s lessons in retail, industrial and residential design can serve as models for towns in similar situations across the country.


Spotlight on Brunswick, Maine

2012-11-23 09.27.52A combination of travel, holidays, and some really interesting contract work (as well as devoting an inordinate amount of time to my last post) have come together to keep me from posting as often as I like. Part of what that means is that I have a lot of backed up Spotlight posts to work on, which hopefully I can take care of in the next week or so. I have also thought about spotlighting areas that I have been to in the past rather than just new places, so I might be adding some stuff from previous travels to Brazil and parts of the US. But for today, this post is all about Brunswick, Maine.

Brunswick is a town of just over 20,000 people on the south bank of the Androscoggin River 26 miles north of Portland, Maine. Although it started as a mill town, it became the home of Bowdoin College in 1794. The town has a number of picturesque waterfalls, homes and surrounding forests, but I won’t focus on those; instead, I want to cover some of the urban elements found in the town.

Brunswick’s main street, which happens to be Maine Street, is abnormally wide for a main street, especially in a traditional New England town. Further south the town green and a smaller street fit within the space that is all road further north, and I wonder if the green once extended up further than it does today but was converted to a road at some point. Some effort is taken to narrow it with angled parking and with neckdowns with benches at the corners, but it still feels very wide, and despite the signs imploring drivers to stop for pedestrians at virtually every intersection, I still felt out of place crossing it.

The road , despite its width, does have the quality of a large outdoor room, thanks to being terminated on both ends. On the north there is a mill tower, and on the south a church steeple, that show you where the ends of the street are. This double termination is rare in a lot of American cities, especially ones that aren’t built on a Baroque plan like Washington or Annapolis.

Brunswick has a lot going on in its planter zone of the sidewalk. Trees are fairly consistently spaced, but they are of different ages and sizes. Some have metal grates around the edges, some have bicycle parking. Some are set in diamonds, some in squares. There are benches, sometimes in the planter zone and facing each other, sometimes along the buildings facing the road. In my mind, this is totally okay. I don’t feel like the street elements necessarily have to be uniform, unless you’re going for a more ceremonial feel to a street. I’m really just happy that they are there. Also, since I was there around Thanksgiving, there were small Christmas trees hanging from the lightpoles, which I thought was unique and appealing.

The sidewalk is also not a consistent width. Though always wide enough to accommodate multiple people side by side, it gets wider in some parts, forming small plazas. These areas are still lined with a strong streetwall, and present a neat deviation from the norm. I don’t know how they use these spaces, but I can imagine that in the warmer months there could be some sort of stands there or other outdoor commerce.

One thing I noticed walking around in the cold morning temperatures was that the paint used on the crosswalks seemed to stay frosty longer than the neighboring asphalt. While the long band crosswalks are generally considered safer because they are easier for drivers to see, they could present a slip and fall hazard. I wonder if crosswalks that have lots of white visibility paint, but in thinner lines with more asphalt between, would be safer.

As you travel south on Maine Street, you approach the town common. Like many New England commons, it is not overly programmed with sports fields and other active recreational uses. It is mostly just a large grassy area with lots of trees and places to sit. There are a few memorials there, as well as a gazebo. On the east side there are a number of large and stately houses, many of which have been converted to offices. The west side has not fared as well, and features a lot of poorly designed suburban-style schlock with parking lots in the front.

Just south of the church that terminates Maine Street is Bowdoin College. Bowdoin is a true, traditional college campus plan, in that most of the buildings are surrounding a yard, part of a tradition established with Harvard. The yard, like the common, is not overly formalized. It is mostly a large green space with lots of trees and paths crossing between the buildings. Though some of these are axial, such as the one leading from the art building to the chapel, most simply follow the lines that form the shortest paths between buildings. When I see a traditional campus like this, I wonder how we’ve gotten so far from it in anything that isn’t a college today. Think of a modern business “campus.” Most of them are just a few buildings surrounded by parking lots, no real useful green space around them and no connections to other buildings. In this age, where we have mobile technology and value networking connections, why couldn’t we design business campuses much like traditional college campuses?

Brunswick is a lovely New England college town with a lot of lessons for urban designers. From an informal but active main street to a traditional New England common to a traditional American college campus, there are lessons that can apply in a variety of places and in our modern time.

Spotlight on Bailey Island, Maine

2012-11-22 09.32.57My family likes to travel for Thanksgiving, but this year my mom decided that she also wanted to cook a turkey, so we needed to rent a place that had an oven. We eventually settled on Bailey Island on the coast of Maine. Though this place is a little bit different from most of the ones I’ve spotlighted so far, its place character is very interesting and a great example of a very small settlement.
USA_Maine_location_map-01Bailey Island is about an hours drive from Portland, but a lot of that is spent driving north to Brunswick and then back south to Portland. It is the furthest south of a series of islands that make up about half of the municipality of Harpswell, Maine, the other half being a point to the west of the islands that is connected to the mainland. Harpswell largely has a very rural character, with homes on their own or clustered branching off of the main roads and nestled between dense pine groves. From my casual observation, it seemed that the most densely developed part of the community were Bailey Island and the southern tip of neighboring Orr’s Island. Despite this comparatively high level of development, Bailey Island lacks certain necessities such as a full-scale grocery store, with the closest being in Brunswick. Because of this, the low population of about 400 permanent residents, and the still largely rural character of the place, I would classify Bailey Island as a suburban hamlet.

Bailey Island does have a concentration of services near its center. These include a graveyard (which on narrow islands it is very important to have at one of the highest points on the island), fire station, restaurant, post office, general store (which includes another restaurant), church, and “library hall,” which from my observation seemed more like a social hall than a library. These are all located along Harswell Islands Road, the main road on the island that connects it to the other islands and eventually to the mainland, and that all other roads branch off of. None of the roads on Bailey Island have sidewalks, but traffic is so light that I could walk on the edge of the road and feel safe.

Bailey Island has horizontal mixed uses across the island in an almost casual arrangement. Mixed into the houses are churches, stores, restaurants, offices, and even a flower nursery. It just seems like it’s no big deal for people there to live next to a season ice cream stand, which may cause a real stir in other parts of the country (think of the traffic!).

One of the most important uses mixed into the hamlet are work spaces. The two main industries on the island seem to be hospitality (mostly based around renting cabins, although there are a few motels) and fishing, especially lobstering. Evidence of this industry could be seen all up and down the island, from lobster pots stacked up in people’s yards to the lobsterman monument at Land’s End, the southern tip of the island. The main piers were concentrated on Mackerel Cove to the south and near Cook’s Restaurant to the north. There were even signs warning people transporting boats about their rigging coming in contact with overhead power lines.2012-11-23 08.49.34Another interesting point is that there was good wayfinding signage all along the island. Virtually everything–restaurants, gift shops, churches, boat rentals–had a wayfinding sign along the main road. Although the signage is definitely auto-oriented in its height and size, it made getting around very easy.

Bailey Island is a great place. Even though it is not an urban place, it has a strong sense of character that makes it very distinct and lovely. Urban environments aren’t for everyone, but not all rural environments are created equal, and Bailey Island is one of the best small places I have been to.

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